Ronald Reagan's Political and Cultural Folklore
The Puritan And Frontier Traditions And The 'Third Half Of The Pie'Darryl Hattenhauer
This article focuses on the American dominant culture's world view implicit in Ronald Reagan's politics. Taking a New Left approach to cultural history, it assumes that proletarians, rural people, and "pre-modern" people are not the only social groups who have a folklore; that the American dominant culture also has a folklore; that if New Left history -- for example Lawrence Levine's Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom -- can treat American slave folklore as cultural history, then the New Left can also approach the dominant culture's folklore as cultural history; that in contemporary political history, the power elite's influence is facilitated by the dominant culture's folklore.
The discussion draws on anthropologist Clifford Geertz's theories on world view, as well as folklorist Alan Dundes' concept of the folk idea, the stuff of which world views are made. In Dundes' definition, folk ideas are the building blocks of world views, "the unstated premises [that] underlie the thought and action of a given group of people."1 The concept of the folk idea is useful because it permits a more precise use of the term "myth" as employed in sociology, anthropology, and American studies. With the term "folk idea," cultural historians can reserve the term "myth" for materials explaining sacred origins, and yet do so without ignoring the findings of allied disciplines on the world view of America's dominant culture. Dundes' essay suggests a few folk ideas in the world view of America's dominant culture. The present article identifies many more American folk ideas -- the articles of America's cultural constitution. The following analysis argues that Reagan's folklore -- his world view and folk ideas -- stems from the Puritan and frontier traditions in American cultural history.
Before examining the folk ideas implicit in Reagan's rhetoric, it is instructive to see how he uses folk themes explicitly. First, he criticizes his opponents by associating them with what his folklore considers negative folk heroes and themes. For example, he told a gathering of businessmen that Ralph Nader is an ersatz white knight: "Little Sir Ralph has become a folk hero taking whacks at you with his wooden sword, and all of a sudden in too many minds, you are the dragon that must be slain."2 Similarly, he claims that Jimmy Carter's "view of the world ranks along with belief in the Tooth Fairy."3 Reagan also argues against certain policies by likening them to folk beliefs. For example, he dismisses social security as "the biggest sacred cow in all of the United States."4
Reagan posits that his opposition lives in a folkloric world of fantasy and delusion while he himself avoids such traditional thought and conventions, coming instead to unfiltered reality. For example, he speaks of the liberal "mythology which replaced understanding of the free enterprise system."5 In other words, his opposition creates delusions while he merely understands the facts. Accordingly, he invites his audience to side with him against those who have not transcended the traditional, pre-modern world: "The Carter Administration lives in a world of make-believe." "But you and I live in a different world..."6
Although Reagan uses folklore to denigrate his opposition, he also uses it to promote his own views. For example, he often insists that the free market is "magic."7 Even his promoters use folklore to present Reagan in a favorable light. Frank Van Der Linden's The Real Reagan, ostensibly a biography, explains that "Reagan is like a Knight of the Age of Chivalry scarred by many battles but holding high his sword for one more charge. He was a Lone Crusader for years as the White Knight of the Right."8
One folkloric genre Reagan uses to promote his views is the proverb. For example, he advises us that "he who would have nothing to do with thorns must never attempt to gather flowers." And in sanctifying our forefathers, he quotes General Patton: "Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men."9
Reagan also uses medicinal folk metaphors for the American economy. In these metaphors, the problem of a sluggish economy starts with the appetitive Democrats, who "still have their hands in the nation's cookie jars."10 As a result of these uncontrolled appetites, the United States' economy is "swollen"11 from an "economic bellyache."12 Similarly, he complains of the "economic stew that has turned the national stomach."13 The outcome of this national dyspepsia is an "economic mess."14 The plan "to clean up our economic mess"15 is ironically twofold. On the one hand, America needs a purge: it needs "relief from over-regulation"16 in order "to get our economy moving again."17 On the other hand, it needs to consolidate: it needs more "order."l8 And with this order, the elimination of America's illness "will not come quickly" but "in inches and feet, not in miles."19 With a "dose" of both the aggressive and retentive "medicine," the "patient"20 will return to "economic health."21 In this metaphor of nutritional throughput, Reagan does not forget that the mode of elimination is dependent on the appetite. So he proposes that the patient be put on a "diet"22 because the "federal government is overgrown and overweight."23
This dieting imagery gives way to more radical methods of reducing. One of Reagan's most widely used figures is "belt-tightening."24 In California, he repeated that each unit of the state government would tighten its belt by ten per cent. His opponents have suggested the analogy is faulty because if one tightens one's belt ten per cent-say three or four inches -- one will suffer not only pain but injury and dysfunction. Belt-tightening has since been replaced by more extreme metaphors. The phrase "remove the layers of fat"25 has a clinically neutral sound, but the words suggest surgical removal, especially when Reagan amplifies the metaphor with the image of "cutting the fat."26 In this same vein, Reagan the social physician insists that it is Carter who is "like the witch doctor that gets mad when a good doctor comes along with a cure that'll work."27
The Covenant and the Crusade
Cultural anthropologists Neil Kinsner and Bill Kleinman argue that a culture's world view can be summed up in what they call a "cultural metaphor."28 Perhaps America's cultural metaphor is to be found in Perry Miller's phrase, "the errand into the wilderness."29 For Reagan, America is leading a spiritual crusade out of a desert of Big Government and modern immorality, and into a wilderness Eden of freedom and affluence. This theme, of course, comes to Reagan from the Puritans, and he uses some of their figures of speech. Where John Winthrop, the first Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, announced that his settlement would be "as a city upon a hill," Reagan says that America will be a "shining city upon a hill" and a "beacon of hope."30 Moreover Reagan continues the Puritans' folk idea that Americans are the chosen people of God and that America's mission is to do God's work. Subscribing to the notion of America as a New World, a divinely inspired second chance, Reagan asks, "Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe free?"3l In accordance with this folk idea, Reagan implies that God planned for Europe to fall and for America to buoy up the saving remnant. (But according to Reagan's opponents, this view that God kept the New World secret until the right people were ready to settle it ignores the native populations, reducing them to the status of a natural resource, along with the other fauna and flora.) Similarly, Reagan claims that he believes in "shaping American policy to reflect God's will,"32 adding that God is "waiting for us to do something."33 Clearly, then, Reagan is committed to upholding a modernized version of the Puritan folk idea of the covenant.
For the Puritan as for Reagan, one of the duties of covenanters is that they should be an example to all mankind. Where Winthrop explained that "the eyes of the world are upon us," Reagan reminds Americans that "the rest of the world is watching America carefully,"34 and, "You have shown a watching world that we are a united people pledged to maintaining a political system which guarantees individual liberty to a greater degree than any other." Reagan even uses the image of eyes: "In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle."35
As a corollary to America's status as God's favorite nation, Reagan regards America as unique. This folk idea of America's uniqueness creates the attendant misconceptions that other countries can not compare with America. For example, he states, "We are a nation that has a government -- not the other way around.
And this makes us special among the nations of the earth."36 This folk idea assumes that the other democracies are under some dictatorial thumb, that in Canada, Japan, and Austria, for example government is beyond popular control while only America is still ruled by the consent of the governed. In this folk idea of America's chosen people and unique status, the Puritan and frontier traditions combine to exaggerate our achievements and ignore the achievements of others: "We have fought harder, paid a higher price for freedom, and done more to advance the dignity of mankind than any people who ever lived."38
This folk idea of American supremacy leads Reagan to express a corollary folk idea: that the world is declining and only God's favorite nation and the chosen people can save it. Thus he speaks of America as "this last and greatest bastion of freedom" and "the last, best hope of man on earth."39 However, Reagan's opponents would claim that if Americans define freedom as something beyond all-night convenience stores and free choice of video recorders, if they see freedom as including, for example, equal rights and opportunities for advancement for all, then Americans can look to Holland or Denmark or any number of countries. Yet Reagan insists that America's responsibility is "leadership of all that remains of the free world."40 Ignoring numerous countries, Reagan insists that "America is still the abiding alternative to tyranny. That is our purpose in the world."41 Thus Reagan maintains the grandiosity of the original Puritan folk idea of the errand. (However, we might forgive the Puritans for proposing what might have seemed true in the Seventeenth Century.) Moreover, the sense of being surrounded by immoral hordes and the destructive imagination for an apocalypse such as that in Moby Dick or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court suffuses the folk idea of America as "the last, best hope of man on earth," and of the folk idea that "if freedom is lost here there is no place to escape to."42
Like many of the dominant culture's heroes before him, Reagan calls for a "spiritual revival": "I want my candidacy to unify our country, to renew the American spirit and sense of purpose. I want to carry our message to every American, regardless of party affiliation, who is a member of this community of shared values." "Let us dedicate ourselves to renewing the American compact."43 And he closed his Presidential nomination acceptance speech by calling his campaign a "crusade" and asking for prayers: "Can we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer?"44 The religious cast to this appeal is explicit. He has declared that inaugural day "should be declared a day of prayer."45 And the reason for this prayer is to remind Americans that theirs is a nation not entirely secular, but a nation at least partly transcendent: "Together let us take up the challenge to re-awaken America's religious and moral heart, recognizing that a deep and abiding faith in God is the rock upon which this great nation was founded."46 And as if to cite evidence of his nation's godliness, he reminds Americans that "Our pledge of allegiance states that we are one nation under God, and our currency bears the motto, 'In God We Trust'."47
Now as Sacvan Bercovitch has detailed, in the ideology of America's dominant culture, secular history continues the mission of Jesus.48 And as students of religion such as Robert Bellah have affirmed, the American dominant culture has a "civil religion" in which the line of descendants who have done God's work runs from Christ and Calvin and Winthrop up through its most deified leaders -- Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln -- and into the present day.49 Reagan affirmed this sacralization of American history during his inaugural address: "At the end of this open mall are those shrines to the giants on whose shoulders we stand."50 He then ran through the list of sanctified heroes, beginning with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, and continuing with the soldiers of World War One, World War Two, Korea, and Vietnam. Although Bercovitch only fleetingly extends his analysis into the Twentieth Century, Reagan explicitly continues this traditional folk idea. First, he claims that the Mayflower compact is the model for American life: "This single act -- the voluntary binding together of free people to live under the law -- set the pattern for what was to come."51 Exemplifying Bercovitch's argument, Reagan extends the linear continuity of Plymouth colony to the American Revolution and then through Lincoln.
As mentioned, Reagan also includes the military in this line running from God and Adam and Jesus. He told an audience of military personnel that they were links in a "chain, holding back an evil force that would extinguish the light we've been tending here for 6,000 years."52 Elsewhere, Reagan treats this theme of the chain of moral command not as horizontal, as stretching back across the United States through Europe to the cradle of civilization. Rather, he treats it as vertical: he uses an image which depicts present Americans as standing on the shoulders of the predecessors. This image of a human ladder of thousands of heroes and demigods, each one perched on the shoulders of his predecessor, Reagan finds indicative of the difference between his imagination and that of 1960s protesters: "Our young rebels saw the generations as horizontal. Each generation separated from others like slices from a sausage. Humankind is vertical. Each generation sees farther than the one before because it is standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before."53 (His unintended implications here are twofold. First, the protesters were the most far-sighted of all, since they were on the top, and the most short-sighted was the crew at the bottom: God, Adam, Jesus. And second, the figure also logically implies that progress is like an ever climbing, jack-in-the-beanstalk erection of heroes; but the protesters mistake this tower of greatness for a mutilated wiener.)
As the current head of this tower of perpetual expansion, Reagan believes that he is God's instrument. As Van Der Linden notes, "Reagan... felt 'called' to lead the nation, as ministers are 'called'... Reagan believes that he is ordained to fill his present role."54 This claim for missionary zeal places the agency for Reagan's election -- in both senses -- in God's hands. His election wasn't Reagan's choice; it was God's. Yet Van Der Linden's promotional treatment unwittingly reveals the truth about Reagan's ascendancy. Rather than receiving the call, Reagan looked eastward from California "in quest of new worlds to conquer."55 The White Knight again.
As Bercovitch has shown in The Puritan Origins of the American Self, the individual of the American dominant culture who is becoming another link in the chain of holy progress makes himself a microcosm for the social group. Each individual becomes a metaphor for the community. Each individual can identify with America, can stand for America. This interchangeability of self and group is implicit in Reagan's statement that "the era of self- doubt is over."56 In this figure, America is both comparable to an individual with self-doubt, and consists of individuals with self- doubt. And as Perry Miller writes, the dynamic of the Puritan jeremiad was first to doubt, then to expunge doubt with a flurry of covenant renewal.57
The sanctity of this American covenant extends to America's international relations. For example, Reagan notes that America's presence in Berlin "is a sacred trust."58 Since he and Americans are chosen by God, there is a certain fatalism to America's international relations. The role of the United States "is not a burden we sought."59 On the stage of history, God has cast the United States in this heroic role. America has no choice but to accept its role as the world's policeman.
A further aspect of the folk idea of American exceptionalism and mission is the notion that America's problems do not originate there among the elect, but creep in from the devils surrounding the United States. Thus for Reagan, as for many of his predecessors, communism, although in some indigenous tribal forms it predated the Europeans' arrival in the New World, "is not of this hemisphere,"60 but rather has to be imported from the Soviet bloc. This folk idea ignores the fact that Christianity and capitalism are not indigenous to the New World.
Another outcome of the folk idea of closeness and mission is that it creates simple us-and-them dichotomies in foreign policy. Thus a recurrent problem for Reagan has been his tendency to view Europe as both a loose federation -- an inferior United States -- and as America's insubordinate dependent in the struggle against Russia. Similarly, if Europeans who don't want missiles in their neighborhood are confused foreigners, so Americans opposed to militarism are dupes of "them." To illustrate, Reagan claims that the nuclear freeze is not "inspired by... sincere, honest people who want peace, but by some who want the weakening of America and so are manipulating many honest and sincere people."61
An additional foreign policy implication of Reagan's folk idea about American exceptionalism and mission is his notion that Americans are, as upholders of Christ, the princes of peace: "We always seek to live in peace. We resort to force infrequently and with great reluctance -- and only after we've determined that it is absolutely necessary. We are awed -- and rightly so -- by the forces of destruction at loose in the world."62 Now a variety of scholars have agreed that a culture can be paranoid -- for example, Richard Hofstadter in The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Paranoia is indicated by two traits: delusions of grandeur, and delusions of persecution. Some would agree that Reagan may not qualify here because what he suffers from are delusions of adequacy. But the concept of delusions of persecution, in which a person projects his negative self on to his devil figures in an effort to maintain his grandiose image of himself, may explain why Reagan can still hold to the folk idea of American peacefulness as opposed to all of the warmongering around the world. The history of American belligerence is too well-known to recount here, but some examples of Reagan's projection illustrate the point. First, while American small businesses fail at unprecedented rates at the same time that multinational corporations gobble them up, Reagan chafes that Soviet centralization stifles individual initiative, causing "malaise and resentment" among the citizenry.64 He claims that Russian armament is "pre-empting the needs of its people." In addition, he attacks Russia for its militarism in the Third World.65 And he avers that the "Soviet Union must make the difficult choices brought on by its military budget and economic shortcomings."66 And finally, to charge that the Russians are hypocritical and insincere about peace, he quotes Demosthenes: "What same man would let another man's word rather than his deeds proclaim who is at peace and who is at war with him?"67
'The People' and The Others
Another important folk idea that Reagan promotes is indicated in his reverent use of the term "the people." For example, he finds that the folk idea of egalitarianism is the wisest part of the Constitution: "We can remind ourselves and those in government who have lost faith in the simple verities that the most profound words in the Constitution are but three in number -- 'We the people.' " 88 As Bercovitch has shown, the founders' understanding of the term "the people" implicitly included only Anglo-Saxon Protestant male property holders.
Who does Reagan imagine comprises "the people"? In his words, "the people" consists of "professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies and truckdrivers. They are in shorts 'We the people.' This breed called Americans."69 "The people," then, have two traits: they cut across class lines, and they are tantamount to a separate race -- a "breed" apart. They are, then, commoners who amount to an elect. Reagan thus affirms both egalitarianism and elitism. He affirms both superiority and equality through consensus, like Jefferson, who said "We are all Federalists; we are all Republicans." And who are not the people? Reagan states that the rioters in Watts were not of the people but "against the people."70 Similarly, he contrasts "the people" with students protesting tuition increases by saying to those students: "I am going to represent the people." The demonstrators replied, "We are the people."71
In Reagan's folk idea of "the people," there can be no serious malaise -- except with students and ghetto rioters: "I find no national malaise, I find nothing wrong with the American people. Oh, they are frustrated, even angry, at what has been done to this blessed land. But more than anything they are sturdy and robust as they have always been."72 This happy folk idea of "the people" overlooks rising rates of drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, divorce, illiteracy, rape, murder, and pollution. Similarly, Reagan glosses over class conflict with his confused folk idea of egalitarianism and elitism. For example, he claims that "in America, our aristocracy is not by accident of birth or royal favor but by virtue of accomplishment."73 With such statements, Reagan seemingly places egalitarianism over elitism in such a way that the elitism can be denied because egalitarianism has already been affirmed. This confusion allows Reagan to treat the exploited as exploiters by contrasting the people with the "special interests." For example, speaking of the House of Representatives, he stated that the representatives "get plenty of input from the special interest groups, they'd like to hear from their homefolks."74 And in another speech, he stated that "grassroots support for a balanced budget amendment is out there and will carry the day against the special interests."75 The term "special interests" is conveniently vague, but just as "the people" (or "homefolks" or "grass roots") excludes ecologists, artists, educators, and social workers, so the term "special interests" implicitly applies to these latter groups.
As was mentioned, the folk idea of the commoner is inherently elitist. It insists that there is an identifiably superior group. For example, we find Reagan claiming that "America is unique in world history because it has a genius for leaders."75 As an example of America's capacity for turning out leaders, Reagan often cites Lincoln, the man of the people, who was great because he was a commoner, who was brilliant because he lacked a formal education, who was a regular guy because he was a corporate lawyer for the railroad, who was just like the other good Americans who ran miles to return a book and did their lessons on the back of a shovel by firelight.
As one of the people, Reagan conceives of himself in the folklore of the simple, innocent midwesterner. About his entry into politics, he claims: "I came out of the woods an innocent."77 And speaking of his childhood, he notes, "My existence turned into one of those rare Huck Finn-Tom Sawyer idylls."78 Typifying his aw-shucks manner, this millionaire who associates with millionaires can say: "I don't know about the hierarchy or the upper regions, I only know about the people."79
This notion of Reagan as the commoner informs Van Der Linden's biography of Reagan. For example, he calls Reagan "an innocent in Tinseltown" whose conversion to conservatism was a "Pilgrim's progress."80 This biography also uses the theme of masculinity as another trait that Reagan shares with Joe Sixpack. Several pages are devoted to accounts of Reagan's athletic prowess as well as appeals to the western image, including the assertion that Reagan "looks like a ranch hand." In addition, the wisdom of folk medicine is employed. Van Der Linden notes that when Reagan was a boy, Reagan's mother was saved by moldy cheese, which contained penicillin, something allegedly unknown to the city doctors with all their book learning.8l And the appeal of the work ethic is also central. Van Der Linden uses the folklore of persistent effort by claiming that Reagan "tramped from one radio station to another asking for any kind of job -- even sweeping floors -- just to get started in the business."82 Moreover, Van Der Linden compares Reagan to another poor Illinois story teller, Abe Lincoln.83 And to satisfy the modernist impulse, he uses the popular psychology that Reagan is "secure" and a "nice guy."84 All of this folklore adds up to one of the most typical characters in American folklore, the man who is beyond folklore, convention, and ideology, whose simplicity puts him in direct contact with reality: "He is an artless, charming man."85
As one of "the people," Reagan feels compelled to explain how, if "the people" are the engines of America, their world view and folk ideas have been derailed, necessitating a spiritual revival to get America back on track to its rendezvous with destiny. Reagan answers that the problem is not with the people but with their leaders. Says he: "The crisis we face is not the result of any failure of the American spirit; it is a failure of our leaders to establish rational goals and give our people something to order their lives by."86 This statement violates the speaker's belief in the primacy of the people. How is it that the people have chosen irrational leaders? And if, according to the folk idea, American policy reflects the coterminous will of the people and God, how is it the people need leaders to give them goals and principles by which to order their lives? Reagan would answer, perhaps, that the people, while still basically flawless, have renounced their power and responsibility by abdicating their role to bureaucrats, intellectuals, and others of the "special interests": "The truth is we've let Government take away many things we once considered were really ours to do voluntarily, out of the goodness of our hearts and a sense of community pride and neighborliness."87 Unable to explain how "the people" could violate the covenant of their world view and folk ideas and yet remain chosen, Reagan focuses his anger on the government. For example, he contends that "the people," the American boys, could have won in Vietnam, but the government was "afraid to let them win."88
Similarly, Reagan's folklore leads him to contend that forty years of liberalism (and that would have to include Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford) made government "the distributor of gifts and privilege."89 Such gifts and privilege presumably consist of welfare, aid to the blind, and scholarships -- but not defense contracts. Government spending, in this folk idea, was aimed not at real problems but only at feathering the nests of the "special interests": "The Ruling Party in Washington wants a larger share of the workers' income to spend as it pleases on expanding the federal bureaucracy."90 For Reagan, there is an additional problem with this increase in bureaucracy. It is inconsistent with the way the West was won: "They built the West without Federal planners."91 Those who promote such regulation are untrue to the will of "the people." Thus Reagan claims that Carter's "failure was rooted in his view of the American people."92 The solution, according to this folklore, is to restore government to the will of "the people." Accordingly, Reagan announced his new concept of leadership, "one based on faith in the American people, and a firm commitment to see to it that the Federal Government is once more responsive to the people."93 Reagan, then, will restore faith in the people, even though they suspended representative government and free enterprise by turning over the ship of state to un-American elitists.
The folk idea that government and the people are diametrically opposed finds Reagan asserting that he is not of the power structure even when he is in office. For example, in Sacramento, he told his cabinet and staff: "We belong here only so long as we refer to government as 'they' and never think of it as 'we.' "94 Reagan's opposition of the people and the government has reified the terms "government" and "bureaucrat" as terms of opprobrium. In this regard, some would contend that Reagan has done more to encourage disrespect for his country than have a million protesters. His disrespect for politicians and bureaucrats leads him to fire as many as possible and replace them with amateurs: "There is no better way to bring about effective government than to have its operation scrutinized by citizens dedicated to that principle."95
For Reagan, the civil service is not staffed by citizens who are already working for effective government. For Reagan, acting on his folk idea of the people and the government, the accountants, actuaries, purchasers, and managers of the public sector are incompetents with their pockets lined with tax revenues, while the accountants, actuaries, purchasers, and managers in the private sector are vigilant citizens. For Reagan, the bureaucrat at Exxon is suited for cleaning up government, while the bureaucrat at the Department of Energy is not; likewise, the bureaucrat at the Department of Energy has no competence in guiding Exxon, while the bureaucrat at Exxon is inherently capable of managing our natural resources. In sum, the government bureaucrat is one of the special interests; the Exxon bureaucrat is one of the people.
An appurtenance to Reagan's body of folk ideas about "the people" is the folk idea of common sense. Consistent with the folk idea that the people know best, Reagan often calls for more common sense. For example, he says, "We will simply apply to government the common sense that we all use in our daily lives."96 He also says that "common sense... characterizes the people of this country."97 For its proponents, the dominant culture's common sense is not socially constructed; rather, it is the great Them -- bureaucrats, liberals, special interests -- who suffer from fantasy-ridden thinking. Carter and the tooth fairy, Ralph Nader and the White Knight. Actually, common sense is part of any culture's folklore. Common sense expresses the culture's world view and folk ideas. Common sense, then, is wisdom, or what passes for it, applied to action. It is this common sense that appeals to Reagan's audience. As one fan in Portland put it: "He simply talks common sense."98 And speaking of our regeneration, Reagan notes that "all it takes is a little common sense and recognition of our own ability."99
That Bad 'Govment'
As was noted, an important folk idea implicit in Reagan's politics is that government is suspect. If the people are inherently good, government is inherently bad, because it interferes with the decisions of the people, decisions which are made in the marketplace. For example, Reagan contends that "the source of our economic problems" is that "the government decides that it knows better then you what should be done with your earnings." "Trust the people. This is the one irrefutable lesson of the entire postwar period contradicting the notion that rigid government controls are essential to economic development."100 Even Reagan's pronunciation of the word "government" indicates his lack of respect for that institution. Like Huckleberry Finn's fathers Reagan complains about the "govment."
Reagan's folklore, to repeat, assumes a split between the private and the public. First of all, the public and private are imagined to be distinct. Thus decisions in the marketplace are not believed to have power; only decisions in government have power. For example, when Exxon decided to quit developing synthetic fuels because it could no longer afford to do so without government help, many people lost their jobs, and their homes near the Colorado research and development center lost their value. In the folk idea that the private sector is and should be relatively free to make decisions which influence hundreds or thousands or millions, such decisions are regarded as natural. But if government restrictions on tourism had similar results, the government's decisions would be regarded as unnatural. Such folk ideas not only set up a double standard for public and private conduct, they also posit a dualism where there is in fact an overlap. For the fact is that so-called "private" industry -- even the language reflects the folk idea that business is untouchable -- makes decisions that influence not just the marketplace but also private lives.
In Reagan's laissez-faire folk ideas, then, the growth of the corporations' power is not intrusive. As a result, the corporations' decision to use sexually oriented advertising to appeal to pre-teens is not seen as an exercise of power, let alone an abuse of power. Similarly, if the marketplace determines that many workers will receive low wages, such an influence on the lives of millions is not seen as resulting from the exercise of power. Yet the government's minimum wage law is called interference. According to this folk belief, people in ghettos are free to prosper because there are no civil laws keeping them down: as Reagan puts it, "There is no law saying the negro has to live in Harlem or Watts."l01 In this folk idea, economic laws do not count. Similarly, the Third World has not been exploited by America, because the marketplace just does not exercise power. Workers in Mexico who assemble our clothes and radios for a tenth of the wages of Americans who buy them will not be convinced when Reagan informs them that "there is absolutely no substance to charges that the United States is guilty of imperialism or attempts to impose its will on other countries by use of force."102 For Reagan, then, economic pressure has no force. From this folk idea, it follows that those who are poor in market economies deserve to be poor. There is no law that says they have to live in the ghetto.
The folk idea of the separation of public and private entities leads to another double standard in the matter of spending. In this folk idea, spending on a state car is a waste, but spending on a company car is not. In addition, government spending on welfare and education is inflationary, but consumer spending on snowmobiles and video games is not. Curiously, however, one form of public spending is not wasteful and inflationary: the military. That which is deemed necessary can not be wasteful and inflationary. And that which is deemed wasteful, such as federal aid to education, must be unnecessary. So it is that the government can pump money into localities through the conduit of military bases, but not through schools, theaters, museums, or hospitals.
According to the folk idea of the split between the public and private sectors, the public sphere is further reprehensible because its salaries must be paid through tax revenues. This position first ignores the fact that the citizenry pays for both public and private salaries. A person pays the salaries and commissions of sales people, managers, owners, and clerks every time he buys something. But according to Reagan's folk ideas, an employee in the public sector who makes $13,000 a year is exploiting the employee in the private sector who makes $30,000.
Taxation is further influenced by the folk idea of the public and private dichotomy. Believing that the private is good and the public is bad, Reagan, as Governor of California, started a private employment program. Although he was acting as the head of the state's public sector, he believed that the program exemplified what American business can do without government. He also contended that such a program does not influence the taxation and spending in the public sector: "Foundations and private citizens have picked up the tab for administrative overhead so it is completely independent of tax revenues." l03 But the donations of those foundations and individuals consist of money that would have been donated somewhere else. Moreover, the donations were, presumably, tax deductible. Without these deductions, which in effect make the government partially subsidize the charity of choice. the donations would be far smaller or non-existent. Reagan uses the same folk idea for the thousands of dollars that were spent on buying new china for the White House. He claims that because the funds were donated, the people don't have to pay for the china. Again, people have to pay indirectly through tax, and those donations could have been used in churches, schools, and hospitals.
Part of Reagan's anti-government folk idea is the corollary folk idea that taxation is largely destructive and unnatural: "High rates of taxation destroy incentive to earn, to save, to invest. And they cripple productivity, lead to deficit financing and inflation, and create unemployment." 104 But the fact is that nations such as Sweden, Germany, and Japan have higher taxes than America, and the result is a higher per capita GNP. Similarly, the folk idea that taxation impedes saving is also invalid. Many European nations have taxes on consumer items and restrictions on credit that require people to save before they buy. In America, low taxes spur inflation by creating demand push, and spur higher interest rates by increasing demand for credit. As for high taxes leading to deficit financing, deficits result from too little revenue, not too much. And higher taxes on the upper-middle class do not reduce incentive; higher taxes would require them to work more.
Similarly, Reagan holds to the folk idea that in the public sphere bigness is bad, but in the private sphere it is good. The overhead of big government lowers one's living standard, but the overhead of big business does not. In the end, Reagan promotes the folk idea that that government governs best which governs least. Actually, that government which governs least has the least to govern. Creeping corporatism has created an urban, industrial, technocratic, and egoistic mass society that can not manage with a philosophy that was designed for a rural, agricultural, self- sacrificing, decentralized polity. The big business Reagan reveres has made impossible the kind of government he envisions.
Despite all of Reagan's cutbacks in the name of non-interference, he violates that folk idea explicitly. For example, the President interfered with federal laws to subsidize American aluminum corporations in Jamaica. According to Jeff Gerth of the New York Times, Reagan wanted to turn Jamaica into the symbol of what free enterprise would do for those who cooperated with the American Way. To that end, Reagan "prompted three federal agencies to waive laws and bend rules, thereby providing more than $100 million to bolster the Jamaican operations of leading American aluminum companies." l05 Moreover, Reagan used David Rockefeller, who was at that time Chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, to organize a group of businessmen to carry out this venture. In a related development, Reagan directed the General Services Administration to buy $67 million of Jamaican bauxite, and in the process the administration waived federal laws requiring competitive bidding.
His folk ideas of the "free" market inform Reagan's reading of economic history. He contends that the American economy "is historically revitalized not by government but by people free of government interference."106 In truth, America was founded on government interference. The Hamiltonian association of business and government was a holdover from the mercantile tradition, which held that business needed government to raise capital and regulate the economy. The folk idea of laissez faire leads Reagan to insist that the last forty years of government regulation, redistribution, and deficit financing brought us to inflation, unemployment, and high interest rates. Actually, it brought us phenomenal material wealth, even after the cost of the Vietnam War brought inflation starting in 1968, and after the rising energy costs exacerbated the problem beginning in 1974.
Nonetheless, Reagan implies that the policies of the last ten to fifteen years are like those from the New Deal on; thereby he implies that the whole post-World War II era was a failure: "There hasn't been too much opportunity in the last 40 years to see what our philosophy can do. But we know what theirs can do. The longest sustained inflation in history, the highest interest rates in a hundred years, eight recessions since World War Two, and a trillion dollar debt."107 This statement ignores the fact that the bad guys' philosophy quadrupled the GNP from 1940 to 1960.
Reagan not only overlooks the conditions which created economic successes and failures, but he also insists -- since the facts must be there, given his folk ideas -- that all other prosperous nations developed without so-called government interference: "The societies which have achieved the most spectacular broad-based economic progress in the shortest period of time [share] their willingness to believe in the magic of the market place."108 The only magic going on here is the ability of Reagan and his audience to deduce from their folklore that countries like Japan, West Germany, and Norway have subscribed to the laissez-faire party line.
But Reagan sticks to his reading of history. His folklore tells him that laissez-faire "has worked before and will work again."109 When has it worked before? After 1929, when the anti-regulatory, anti-intellectual conservatism of Harding and Coolidge did much to create the Great Depression? When the free-market theory of the 1870s and 1880s permitted robber barons on the one hand and literally-starving farmers and laborers on the other? When Andrew Jackson's anti-regulatory anti-intellectualism disestablished the "monster" bank, exacerbating the depression of the 1830s?
Dundes identifies the folk idea of unlimited good as a corollary of the folk idea of progress.110 According to the folk idea of progress, America's wealth and power should increase every year, and if they do not, someone has interfered with the Divine Plan. For believers in these folk ideas, the government has interfered in the good work of the American people if Americans answer no to Reagan's following question: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"111
The folk idea of unlimited good prevents Reagan and the dominant culture from understanding that natural resources are finite, that increasing scarcity, not income distribution and regulation, are reducing the increase in our standard of consumption. As Dundes claims, the folk idea of unlimited good is tied to the folk idea of dominating nature, of expecting nature always to provide an undiminishing store of energy and raw materials. And so Reagan asserts -- against all ecological evidence -- that "prosperity is a fundamental part of our environment."112 For Reagan, believing in the New World's exceptionalism, natural resources are infinite, and so too is America's ability to increase its standard of consumption: "Our hemisphere has an unlimited potential for economic development and human fulfillment."ll3 Where Carter learned that America must conserve resources, use them more slowly so that the United States can change over to non-fossil fuels before they run out, Reagan calls for extracting more energy from fossil fuel, using it faster, as if it will replenish itself: "Those who preside over the worst energy shortage in our history tell us to use less, so that we will run out of oil and gas a little more slowly." "America must get to work producing more energy. The Republican program for solving economic problems is based on growth and productivity." 114 When Reagan rejects "an energy policy based on the sharing of scarcity,"115 he rejects reality in favor of his folklore.
The world view shared by Reagan and his audience assumes our ability to sustain growth. The free market is assumed as a given -- as if corporations exist in a state of nature. In this world view, there is an ecology of the market, an ecology that produces unending growth from unending resources. If the United States runs short of finite resources, there must be some interference with nature, some interference from -- government. And so Reagan's energy policy is to get government out of nature, out of the market, by disestablishing the Department of Energy in much the same way that Andrew Jackson disestablished the National Bank: "We do not need an Energy Department to solve our basic energy problem: as long as we let the forces of the marketplace work without undue interference, the ingenuity of consumers, business, producers, and inventors will do that for us."116 America will overcome the laws of physics just as America will overcome the laws of economics. In this vision of limitlessness, Reagan has posited a third half of the pie.
Now even though he regards Carter's dreams as delusionary, he regards the American dream as still honorable: "We are a people known for dreaming with our eyes open."117 In Reagan's vision, God's promise to America can be redeemed. "This time has come for the American people to reclaim their dream." As special people, "We have every right to dream heroic dreams." Besides, "we are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams."118 Small is ugly.
But Reagan's version of the American dream combines vague intimations of exalted purpose with base lust for material gain; the two go hand in hand: "Most of our forebears came to this hemisphere seeking a better life for themselves; they came in search of opportunity and, yes, in search of God."119 For Reagan, the search for God and moral purpose is quickly passed over in pursuit of its corollary, "opportunity," which is a convenient code word for acquisitiveness: "There is a spiritual revival going on in this country, a hunger on the part of the public to once again be proud of America, all that it is and all that it can be." "Now the first step... must be the rejuvenation of our economy." l20 With this fortuitous marriage of world redemptive moral purpose and the pursuit of unending affluence, snowmobiles serve God and nature. When Americans seek for themselves, they also do for others. Or as Garry Wills puts it: "selfishness is a duty with us." 121 This folk idea of the morality of immorality also applies to the foreign market -- a kind of international trickle-down theory: "A prosperous, growing U.S. economy will mean increased trading opportunities for other nations."122
For Reagan, then, the confusion of high consumption with the good life -- even that term sounds materialistic -- makes increasing affluence a necessary condition for remaining true to God and nature. Inflation, taxes, high interest rates, and deficits "will put an end to everything we believe in and to our dreams for the future."l23 In this analysis, America's mission depends now on restoring "material affluence on a scale unequalled in history." l24 If affluence is necessary for the good life, how is it that all of those considerably less affluent generations before World War II were good Americans? What can America's national purpose be if it is dependent on the growing wealth that will exhaust its natural resources?
Three hundred years ago, the original Puritan polities failed largely because their means of creating a society consistent with their world view undermined the society that they tried to construct. The unbridled emphasis on work and frugality resulted in the accumulation of goods. As a result, the populace became more worldly, fewer and fewer were concerned with signs of their salvation, and more and more were concerned with signs of their secular salvation -- their accumulation of goods and power. In recent years, the value placed on work, the belief in education (as opposed to training), the family, sexual restraint, frugality delayed gratification -- all of these have withered. Only the pursuit of affluence remains, more militant than ever, as a means to that nebulous American dream. But as with the Puritans, Americas means have become an end. America's means will destroy the contemporary Americans' society more thoroughly and disastrously than the Puritans' means of work and frugality did theirs. The exhaustion of the environment will far exceed the damage done by concern for such worldly goods as fine cloth and imported wood. But at least the Puritans were knowledgeable about their forebears; even if the Puritans vainly tried to cut their ties to the so-called Old World, they knew the assumptions and principles of their spiritual and intellectual lineage. In the world view that has come down from them, however, Reagan only dimly perceives the history of the dominant culture's world view and folk ideas. Mark Twain once said, in an ethnic slur that reveals America's xenophobia and exceptionalism, that it is a rare Frenchman indeed who knows the identity of his true father. In our own time, those who are unaware of their ideational forebears, those whose celebrations of their patrimony only reveal their ignorance of their intellectual family tree, are the real illegitimate children.
From The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1984 (Vol. 5, Nos. 2, 3, 4), pages 325-347.
Darryl Hattenhauer is a graduate student and instructor at